By Rainer Maria Rilke – 1875-1926
A ghost, though invisible, still is like a place
your sight can knock on, echoing; but here
within this thick black pelt, your strongest gaze
will be absorbed and utterly disappear:
just as a raving madman, when nothing else
can ease him, charges into his dark night
howling, pounds on the padded wall, and feels
the rage being taken in and pacified.
She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once
as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.
About This Poem
Have you ever feared a black cat crossing your path? This is from ancient superstitions where people thought this meant bad luck. For many cultures and historical settings, black cats were actually meant for positive things. So, to try and dispel these myths about black cats, National Black Cat Appreciation Day was created to be celebrated on August 17 every year. Today, pop culture loves black cats. There’s the sarcastic Thackery Binx in Hocus Pocus, Salem, in Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, and Pyewacket in the classic Bell, Book, and Candle, and we can’t forget the classic cartoon black cat, Luna in Sailor Moon. Black cats are seen as loyal companions, and this is what they were seen as for a lot of cultures in history too.
So, who’s to blame for this negative black cat spin? Superstition! But mostly because during the Middle Ages, people (mainly the Catholic Church) saw witches as shape-shifting black cats and the damage was done. From then on, black cats were seen as evil entities for years and years to follow. The Rilke poem “Black Cat” follows in this vein. The poem was originally published in Rilke’s 1923 collection Duino Elegies. Rilke began writing this collection in 1912, but it remained unfinished for a decade before being completed and published.
So why this poem today? Since 2011, cat lovers around the world have celebrated Black Cat Appreciation Day on August 17th. It is a day to celebrate and appreciate the black cats in your life. Today, I celebrate my little companion, Isabella, a beautiful, sleek black cat. Black Cat Appreciation Day was created by a man named Wayne H. Morris, in honor of his late sister, June, who passed away at age 33, a few years before the first official Black Cat Appreciation Day. This date was chosen as a memorial of June’s passing. June deeply loved her own black cat, Sinbad, who lived to be 20 years old. Sadly, Sinbad was reunited with June two months after her passing.
Black cats are often the least adopted and most overlooked cats in animal shelters, resulting in many of these wonderful animals being euthanized when they can’t find a loving home. Because they are less likely to be adopted from shelters, they need a special holiday in their honor to bring awareness to this issue, and to encourage people to adopt these amazing animals. Black cats are often misunderstood and overlooked because of their coat color and the superstitions surrounding them. Also, many shelters will not allow adoptions of black cats in October because people adopt them for Halloween and then discard them afterward. The life of a black cat in shelters can be very sad because there are several stupid and silly reasons why people looking to adopt a cat are less likely to adopt black cats.
- They have long been associated with bad luck, misfortune, and witchcraft. Even in our modern times, there are still people who believe these silly superstitions. You would be surprised to learn how many people still believe that black cats bring bad luck or cause misfortune to anyone who crosses their path. Many religious people also fear them because of their association with witchcraft. These superstitions are not only silly and untrue but are also harmful to beautiful black cats who are in search of forever homes.
- Another reason why people may be less inclined to want to adopt a black cat is that they consider dark solid coats to be “boring,” and prefer a flashier tabby, calico, or other uniquely marked cats. This is an unfair assessment, as black cats are beautiful creatures with luxurious black coats. They look like majestic miniature black panthers roaming around your home and are just as beautiful and charming as any other cat. Besides, black matches almost anything, so you will always look fashionable next to your black cat friend.
- In our social media-obsessed world, some people also shy away from adopting black cats because they believe that they don’t show up as well in pictures. Many people today want pets that they feel they can show off on the internet. Black cats can be just as photogenic as any other cat. Just look at Isabella, she often is a great subject for pictures. With the proper lighting, background, and photography technique, your cat will look stunning on your Instagram feed!
- Many prospective pet owners use the internet to find their new furry friends, so they are likely to overlook animals that are not photographed well. Because black cats are a bit harder to photograph than pets with lighter coat colors, they may be overlooked by prospective owners browsing online adoptable pet listings. It is important for shelters to photograph the adoptable pets in their best light to help them to find their forever homes.
Black cats are beautiful creatures that make a wonderful addition to any home. In some countries, including England, Scotland, and Japan, they are considered good luck. In Japan, it is believed that a single woman who owns a black cat will have many suitors. In England, they are commonly thought to bring good luck to anyone who crosses their path. In Scotland, it is said that a strange black cat arriving at your home will bring good fortune and prosperity.
Many cat owners (I would not be one of them) agree that their black cats are often the most affectionate and playful cats they’ve ever had. For me, Isabella is not very affectionate. She wants to be near me most of the time and sometimes wants to lay on me, but she never cuddles and hates to be held. Others claim black cats are known for their unique personalities and cuddly dispositions. Some researchers also claim that black cats are more resistant to disease. There is some research to suggest that at least two genes associated with melanism may also help them resist certain diseases.
So if you are looking to adopt a cat, consider a black cat. They need the love, and they will love you back. Isabella might not be the most affectionate, but she constantly shows her love and appreciation for me, and isn’t that what we all want from our pets, especially our cats who often seem so indifferent to their human companions. I have spent most of the pandemic working from home, and when I first started working from home, Isabella was never far away. I think she has probably gotten a little tired of me being home so much and she’s not as close by all the time these days, but I have returned to working at the museum five days a week, so she will have her alone time again. I’ve had cats in the past who show how mad they are at you for leaving them for any amount of time. Isabella has never been that way. Most of the time, she greets me at the door, and if she hears me in the stairway, and I don’t come into my apartment quick enough, she makes her impatience known. She is a wonderful little companion, and I feel so blessed to have her.
About the Poet
On December 4, 1875, Rainer Maria Rilke was born in Prague. His parents placed him in military school with the desire that he become an officer—a position Rilke was not inclined to hold. With the help of his uncle, who realized that Rilke was a highly gifted child, Rilke left the military academy and entered a German preparatory school. By the time he enrolled in Charles University in Prague in 1895, he knew that he would pursue a literary career: he had already published his first volume of poetry, Leben und Lieder, the previous year. At the turn of 1895-1896, Rilke published his second collection, Larenopfer (Sacrifice to the Lares). A third collection, Traumgekrönt (Dream-Crowned) followed in 1896. That same year, Rilke decided to leave the university for Munich, Germany, and later made his first trip to Italy.
In 1897, Rilke went to Russia, a trip that would prove to be a milestone in Rilke’s life, and which marked the true beginning of his early serious works. While there the young poet met Tolstoy, whose influence is seen in Das Buch vom lieben Gott und anderes (Stories of God), and Leonid Pasternak, the nine-year-old Boris’s father. At Worpswede, where Rilke lived for a time, he met and married Clara Westhoff, who had been a pupil of Rodin. In 1902 he became the friend, and for a time the secretary, of Rodin, and it was during his twelve-year Paris residence that Rilke enjoyed his greatest poetic activity. His first great work, Das Stunden Buch (The Book of Hours), appeared in 1905, followed in 1907 by Neue Gedichte (New Poems) and Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge). Rilke would continue to travel throughout his lifetime; to Italy, Spain, and Egypt among many other places, but Paris would serve as the geographic center of his life, where he first began to develop a new style of lyrical poetry, influenced by the visual arts.
When World War I broke out, Rilke was obliged to leave France and during the war, he lived in Munich. In 1919, he went to Switzerland where he spent the last years of his life. It was here that he wrote his last two works, the Duino Elegies (1923) and the Sonnets to Orpheus (1923). He died of leukemia on December 29, 1926. At the time of his death, his work was intensely admired by many leading European artists but was almost unknown to the general reading public. His reputation has grown steadily since his death, and he has come to be universally regarded as a master of verse.